Towns without musicians

Recently, while covering Cyclone Gaja, I stayed in Thiruvarur, the birthplace of the Carnatic Trinity (Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri) and of many other famous musicians. Thiruvarur V. Namasivayam, flautist N. Ramani, nagaswaram player T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai and mridhangam player Thiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam were born and trained in this temple town and then moved to Chennai in pursuit of a career. It is not only Thiruvarur that is famous for its musicians. Anyone making a trip to Kumbakonam, Mayiladuthurai, Mannargudi, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur or Thiruvaiyaruwill come across a place which is associated with a musician of fame. In no other field, as far as I know, is the name of a place associated with a renowned personality.Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer, Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, Thiruvidaimarudur Sakarama Rao, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai and Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai are some of the names that have dominated the music world and continue to evoke awe. But things have changed today.“I am not able to find a music teacher in Thiruvarur to teach my daughter music,” nagaswaram player Edumbavan V. Ilayaraja, who lives in Thiruvarur, told me. This is the sad reality. The music seems to have disappeared in many places just like the water in the Cauvery when the monsoon fails. Barring nagaswaram and thavil players who are attached to local temples, musicians and dancers shifted their base to Chennai in the later part of the 19th century after the disintegration of feudalism and the fall of temples and courts. The establishment of music departments in Madras University and Annamalai University also provided opportunities. “Fifty years ago, there was a music teacher in every village. His or her knowledge on the subject matched a well-known name in the field,” said Rama Kausalya, former principal of the Music College, Thiruvaiyaru. Ms. Kausalaya was taught by Appu Vaathiyar, grandson of Narasimha Bhagavathar, who was a disciple of Rama Iyengar, who learnt directly from Thyagaraja. “We used to pay Rs. 2 per month, and he was considered family by every student who learnt music from him,” she said. Harikatha exponent Kamala Murthy was perhaps the last artist of the previous generation who refused to leave Thanjavur till her last days. Of course, events like the Melattur Bhagavatha Mela and Thyagaraja Aradhana attract a lot of musicians and music lovers to composite Thanjavur, the cradle of music. “But they leave after the events. There is hardly any opportunity for a musician to make a livelihood here. Only nagaswaram and thavil players continue to live here,” said nagawaram player Injikudi M. Subramaniam, recalling the return of late vocalist Kulikkarai Viswalingam to his native place after retiring from All India Radio. While Ms. Kausalya acknowledged that Chennai provides many opportunities for musicians, the mass migration of artists from these towns to the city brings to my mind the story of the musician Malli in T. Janakiraman’s short story ‘Isai Payirchi’. After trying his luck in Chennai for many years, Malli leaves for his native village and tries to teach music to a Dalit, only to be ridiculed by the villagers. An angry Malli throws away his sruthi box. It is later found hanging on the fence surrounding his house.

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